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Analysis & Opinion
03.11.09 Repudiated Personality
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev lambasted Josef Stalin’s regime of terror in his video blog on October 30, distancing himself from the recent efforts some Russians have undertaken to gloss over the crimes committed by the Soviet dictator. Institutionalized attempts to rehabilitate Stalin have been increasingly common since former-President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. Watchers of president Medvedev’s relationship with Putin will be paying close attention to see whether Medvedev’s condemnation of “falsifying” history will expose a fissure in the tandem.

Millions were killed during Stalin’s reign of terror and, as “nothing has higher value than human life,” there can be “no justification for repression,” Medvedev said on Russia’s Day of Remembrance for the victims of political repression. This rare criticism of the Stalin regime, posted by the Kremlin, demonstrates an unusual willingness on behalf of the political establishment to confront the atrocities committed during the Soviet times. “I think it is very significant. It goes very much against what has been done in terms of history-politics for quite a while,” said Alexei Miller, a professional historian and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The most controversial indication of the creeping rehabilitation of Stalin’s image in recent times was the renovation of Moscow’s Kurskaya metro station, completed in early September, which returned a Stalinist verse of the Soviet national anthem to the main entrance hall. The verse, which reads “Stalin reared us – on the loyalty to the people; he inspired us to labor and heroism,” was removed after the death of the Soviet dictator in 1953, during Khrushchev’s period of de-Stalinization. Also in September of this year, a Russian scholar investigating what happened to the thousands of ethnic Germans living in Stalin’s Soviet Union during World War Two was briefly arrested and subsequently had his research confiscated by the FSB.

“Basically what [Medvedev] said about interpretations of Stalin and the criminal nature of the regime goes dramatically against the whole concept of the history textbook, which has been promoted in Russian schools since 2007 under the patronage of Vladislav Surkov [the deputy head of the presidential administration often identified as the regime’s chief ideologist],” said Miller. The textbook in question, “A History of Russia: 1945 to 2008” by Alexander Filippov and Pavel Danilin, gained notoriety for promoting Stalin as an “effective manager,” drawing the focus away from his reign of terror which reached its height in the late 1930s. He is instead remembered for transforming the Soviet Union into a nuclear-armed superpower and defeating Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Medvedev was careful to laud these achievements, but attributed them to “the people,” rather than their dictator. “The crimes of Stalin do not depreciate the heroic deeds of the people, which brought victory in the Great Patriotic War, turned our country into a mighty industrial power, and brought our industry, science and culture onto the global level,” he said.

In his address, Medvedev lamented that 90 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 could not even name famous people who had suffered during Stalin’s repressions, according to a survey conducted two years ago. Last year, Stalin was voted the third greatest Russian of all time by 50 million Russians in a poll conducted by the Rossiya television channel.

Medvedev’s address is a departure from the political establishment’s previous line, and also signals a more concerted attempt to oppose the falsification of history on the part of the president himself. In May, he announced the formation of a commission “To Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of the Russian Federation.” Critics, however, pointed to the irony of attaching a clear political proviso to the name of a commission purportedly charged with protecting history. “The problem is the whole commission itself was created as a part of history-politics and cannot play any positive role, by definition,” said Miller. “If you look at the composition of the commission, it’s not a commission of people who are experts in history; it’s rather a commission of people who can provide historians with materials from the secret services’ archives to write what they want them to write,” he explained. However, Medvedev’s recent address suggests a change of mood at least in the Kremlin. “I think [Medvedev’s address] is a very positive sign,” said Miller.

But what is the political significance of Medvedev’s address? Nikolai Petrov, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, played down the impact of the address on the Putin-Medvedev relationship and argued that speculating on areas of conflict between the two is unhelpful, since their relationship is not equal. “It’s not a tandem at all, in the sense that their roles are very different,” he said. While “Medvedev’s role is more connected with the virtual space and image-making, Putin is the decision-maker,” he added. To that extent, politically speaking, Medvedev’s address was probably conceived more to improve Russia’s image abroad and amongst educated, Internet-using Russians.

The vision of Medvedev as far weaker than Putin may also shed light on why Medvedev made the address in the first place. According to Petrov, the president is trying to establish his own political voice and remain in the public eye, whilst still staying within his remit as an image-maker. “I think that Medvedev, being pretty limited in his capabilities to influence what is going on and participate in the decision-making processes, needs different options to keep himself at the center of public discussions” said Petrov.

If the second agenda of Medvedev’s address was indeed to consolidate his popularity, he found a strong supporter in Matvey Ganapolskiy, a commentator for the Echo of Moscow radio station. When Medvedev called Stalin’s repression “one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia,” he may have meant it as an antithesis to Putin’s famous quip that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century. But of far more importance was that he actually criticized the Stalin regime, Ganapolskiy wrote on Friday. “All Medvedev said was words, nothing more. But in politics, especially in Russian politics, that is where it all begins,” he said in his blog on the Echo of Moscow Web site. Certainly, in the West at least, the Kremlin’s more sensible and mature line on Stalin’s crimes will be well-received.
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